Friday, December 22, 2006

Breakthrough of the Year 2006

Science magazine has it's Breakthrough of the Year 2006 and it is...the proof of the Poincare Conjecture. No physics stories made the top 10. (One of my favorite results of the year, the sequencing of Neanderthal DNA, was their #2 story).

One refreshing thing that Science does to go back to their predictions for 2006 and own up to where they were right, and where they missed the boat. This is, of course, something you would never expect from palm readers, televangelists, chiropractors, or similar quacks; but it is part and parcel with the intellectual attitudes of professional scientists. The magazines editors admit getting several predictions wrong, like first observatiosn from LIGO of gravity waves (but they also point out that analysis results are expected to be made public by March). They also make predictions, or "areas to watch", for 2007.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Who Said YouTube Was a Waste of Electrons

Get past the rambling teenage monologues, music videos, and LEGO-based movie spoofs, and there is some good content on YouTube, like a cool video HISTORY OF EVERYTHING. No dialog, just images illustrating how things got here, from Big Bang to us. The amount time spent in different epochs are of course not proportional to the real intervals, or humans would only get less than single frame at the end. Except for a rather annoying version of John Lennon's song Imagine, it's worth a view.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Things Going on That You Don't Know

Foreign Policy: The Top Ten Stories You Missed in 2006 lists a lot of evidence that things are much worse than you know. Only two of the items are positive (#7: decreasing gender gap, and #6: secret talks between Israel and Iran). In the long term, the most dangerous to Americans may be
* The decision by petroleum producing nations to switch from the dollar to the euro. This is one more piece of evidence that the U.S. is losing its dominance as the world's leading economic power. For several years the EU has had a stronger currency and a larger market than the U.S. As we continue to lose our manufacturing sector, I expect the dominant economic power to be the EU.
* The domestic power grab by the Bush administration. In the 2006 Defense Authorization Act, the president was giving sweeping new powers to send in Federal troops for domestic reasons, thereby greatly increasing the possibility of martial law in the future. The article quotes Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, one of the few to raise the issue in congress, saying that “Using the military for law enforcement goes against one of the founding tenets of our democracy.”

But don't feel bad that you never heard about these things - after all, there were those panty-less photos of Brittney Spears that needed news time...

Thursday, December 14, 2006

TED Blog

TED Blog has links to talks from the TED (technology, entertainment, design) conferences. Very high level stuff, the most recent one seems to have beome one of the focal points of the resurgent skeptics movements, with excellent talks from the likes of Dennett and Dawkins and (of all people) ex-SNL comedienne Julia Sweeney.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

The Physics Story of the Year

The Physics Story of the Year from the American Institute of Physics's Physics News Update page. They pick the high precision measruement of the electron magnetic moment (g, for those in the know, with an uncertainty of 0.76 parts per trillion). When combined with a theory calculation involving 891 8-th order Feynman graphs (!!), this leads to a measurement of alpha, the fine structure contant, that has an uncertainty of 0.70 parts per billion.

AIP lists several other top stories. Only one is from High Energy Physics as such - the observation of the Sigma_b baryons - although the g measurement is clearly related, as are some results like matter-antimatter chemistry and particle "lasers". AIP cites the HAPPEx experiment's measuremnt of the vitual s quark content of the proton, which is closely related to work being carried out by the LA Tech nuclear group on a different Jefferson Lab experiment.

My votes for top HEP stories would have to be
1) Evidence for single top production at the Tevatron.
2) Determination of the omega minus spin, 31 years after it's discovery.
3) Sigma_b
4) B_s oscillation measurements.
5) First results from MINOS.
6) Completion of the final LHC dipole magnet.

Water, water everywhere

Water flows on Mars (December 2006) from PhysicsWeb describes an article, to be published in Science, that shows before and after photos from the Mars Global Surveyor which indicate that water flowed on Mars within the last seven years.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Shaken, not stirred

An interesting article Is James Bond responsible for the Iraq war? By Richard Cohen in Slate Magazine makes the case that folks gave extra creedance to the now-discredited claim that Saddam was buying Uranium ore from Niger, simply because said the intelligence said that the informationcame from British intelligence, and our notions of British spies are inflated due to the Bond novels and movies.

I have to admit, I am a big Bond fan. I've read most the books, all of the original Fleming novels when I was still a kid, and I've seen all the movies. I could my hold own in a Bond trivia contest. For what it is worth, I really enoyed the latest film, Casino Royale, which had a lot of elements of the original novel (Vesper Lynd's emotional fragility, the torture scene - although in the novel LeChiffre used a carpet beater, Bond intent to resign and stay with Vesper).

Monday, December 04, 2006

Two by Two

SkepticReport * The Whole Silly Flood Story goes through several critiques of the Genesis Flood story.

This is to most people a completely unnecessary exercise. Most folks do not take the Genesis story literally, even if they are themseleves religious, and therefore do not need to look at it scientifically. Unfortunately, the creationist-types, who are quite abundant where I live, make the Flood a keystone of their geology, and by doing so invite attacks like this. Their reaction will always be that folks like the Skeptic report are "anti-religion" (well, probably so), intolerant, and discriminate against Christians.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Radio Free Olbermann

Great special comment from Keith Olbermann, taking former Speaker of the Reichstag...sorry, I meant of House of Representatives, and anti-historian Newt Gringrich to task for his recent comments favoring limiting Freedom of Speech (link via onegoodmove)

Hi! We're frm the government and we're here to help!

Sex Will Make You Go Blind / Single? Under 30? You are in grave danger. Your government says so. Please, stop laughing

So, why is the media not covering exactly how pitifully stupid this administration is? Are they afraid that they will be accused of liberal bias, if they just let these meatheads' own words become widely publicized?

Here is another great example of our Glorious Leader's minions in action:

Fearless Voices Jessica Valenti: Bush Appoints New (Terrifying) Director of the Office on Violence Against Women The Huffington Post

Thursday, November 30, 2006

But I Guess Things Could Be Worse...

Kansas Outlaws Practice Of Evolution (from The Onion - America's Finest News Source)

Freedom to Teach Evolution as "Just a Theory"

So, this is what I have to put up with...a local school board is implementing the latest attempt to weaken science instruction:

The News Star - - Monroe, LA

The newest tactic is to cloak the teaching of creationism under the guise of "academic freedom". In this case, academic freedom is apparently interpreted to mean the freedom to re-define terms like "science". "theory", or "explanation" to fit your particular religious worldview.

One other thing to notice is the use of the terms Darwinism and Darwin's Theory. This is not simply their way of ignoring over one hundred-fifty years of biological research. It is also a way of creating an easy strawman argument: Evolution = Darwinism => Darwin did not know about a lot of things, and made statements about holes in the fossil record => Ergo, you cannot believe evolution.

Just in case anyone is wondering, evolutionary theory does not equate in a one-to-one fashion with Darwinism. There has been a lot of biology since then (Darwin did not know about DNA for example). It's like attacking cosmology on the basis of statements in Newton's Principia (or the moral failings of Newton, of which there were many).

The one silver lining is that is not my parish's school board (it is the parish were I grew up, though). Maybe this nonsense won't spread, but I have lived in this state too long to get my hopes up.

Monday, July 17, 2006

By the Bay

This week finds the Sawyer family in San Francisco, CA. We got here on Friday, did some touristy things on Saturday, then visited friends in the area on Sunday. That included going up to Petaluma to see Ransom Stephens, former high energy physicsists turned project scientist for Agilent turned author and lecturer on jitter. (His book writing ventures are aimied at a memoir and a novel - the jitter just pays the bill for now. He has his own website at Ransom was a faculty member at University of Texas - Arlington, where I was a post doc, back in the days of the SSC.

We packed up some food and wine and headed out to Point Reyes to watch the Pacific Ocean beat the shore. It was great. Ransom's daughter Heather, a political science major at UC-Santa Cruz, came along and we talked politics in the car. Ransom, Carol, and I drank a couple bottles of wine, Ransom and I smoked a couple of cigars (which my son disapproved of greatly), and way too soon it was time to hit the road.

We left Petaluma and went to Menlo Park to visit another physicst who left the purity of science to make a living in the real world. Andy Belk was a fellow graduate student on the ALEPH experiment at CERN back in the late 1980s, but he got of the field right after finishing his PhD. He worked for SwissBank a while, living near Chicago where I got to see him and his wife Emmanuelle a couple times when I was at Fermilab. After a couple of years he took a job with Apple. He quit a while to work for a high-tech startup, but now he is back at Apple.

Andy and Emmanulle have three daughters: Bettina, Elena, and Fiona. Emmanualle is a photographer and artist by training, and she has some of the finiest photos of jazz musicians I have ever seen. She took them in Paris when she was the staff photographer for a jazz club. Being Silicon Valley, of course they have a website (have had, in fact, for a long time) at

We had some take-away Vietnamese food, and a little more wine, then sat around and talked a while.

It is an effort to maintain a friendship when you only see each other once every few years. And I am a terrible one about not writing or phoning. I place no blame on anyone I have lost touch with, it is invariably my fault. But these folks - Ransom, Heather, Andy and Emmanuelle - are important to me, even if we are out of touch for long periods of time.

Today we have stayed out of the City, walking around the Stanford campus and eating lunch in Palo Alto. We also did a little laundry. Tomorrow, we are going to the Exploratorium in the morning, and in the evening we fly to Vancouver, where I will get back into physics myself by attending the Vancouver Linear Collider Workshop.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

In Medias Res

So you got a new blog, you want to join the mighty blogosphere, and what do you do? You wait for that exciting event that you will use as the grist for your first post. But life is usually not very exciting, is it? So what you reallyhave to do is just jump in.

This week I have been working with a physics major, Joshua Hignight, on simulation studies for the proposed International Linear Collider. This is fairly high level stuff, and normally a junior physics major would not be able to handle the work. Josh, though, is a pretty exceptional character - a graduate tof the Louisiana Academy for Math, Science, and the Arts. He came into LA Tech with several credit hours of college equivalent work, and he knows how to program. This is a rare art indeed, believe it or not. Most of our students are Window savvy, but would not know C++ from Sanskrit. And our grdauate students, who are predominantly Indian, claim to know C++ but usually really only know Telugu.

So Josh is helping me to get some tracking studies done before the big American Linear Collider Physics Conference in Vancouver in July. Working on the ILC is one of two major physics projects that I am involved in. The other is the DZero experiment (officially written D0 with a / trough the 0) at Fermi National Accelerator Lab in Batavia, IL. I have been a member of DZero since 1992, which means I am one of the (many many) co-discoverers of the top quark in 1995. I have a postdoc who works for me at Fermilab, and I have a couple of graduate students involved in DZero work.

The other thing I do to while away the hours in the piney woods of north Louisiana is adminster the chemistry and physics programs. Because of a major reorganization of the College of Engineering and Science at LA Tech a few years back, we no longer have departments. Instead we have "programs". and instead of having department heads, we have "Academic Directors" - 12 month adminstrators who oversee the faculty in one or more programs - and "program chairs", who are 9 month regular faculty who take on the responsibility of class scheduling and curriculum issues (such as student advising, new course offerings, etc.) in a particular program. Actually, lucky me, I am both Academic Director for Chemstry & Physics, and Program Chair for Physics.

In my copious spare time I have a family, I write, and I play bass guitar with a couple of other faculty members in a blues band. That's just about me all over - let's start blogging!